Book Review: Seafaring Lore & Legend by Peter Jeans

Author Peter Jeans has put together a compilation of various stories, myths, legends, customs, and superstitions related to the sea and the sailing profession.

This book covers a lot of ground, but none of it in extensive detail. Most of the contents are geared towards ancient stories and mythology as it relates to the ocean, but some sections of the book cover historical and/or geographical topics such as famous pirates, ship types, nautical customs, renowned voyages, etc.

Jeans has pulled his information from many different sources. The amount of coverage devoted to each of the topics varies from a couple of paragraphs to several pages in length. At the very least, there are end notes allowing further research into the information. Even better, an annotated bibliography is included where Jeans gives his opinion on each source he used. Naturally, there are far more comprehensive and in-depth sources on maritime mythology and customs than this book, but it’s a decent place to start. It seems that Jeans relied heavily on other similar compilations such as Peter Kemp’s The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, and Peter Freuchen’s Book of the Seven Seas.

My biggest criticisms of this book are that it tends to get a little wordy and is in need of some better editing. Quotes are provided before each entry, but I had difficulty in understanding how some of them were related to the topic at hand. For example, the entry on the loss of the USS Scorpion is preceded by a quote regarding the prophecies of Mother Shipton. Jeans then goes on for a paragraph on the legend of Mother Shipton before he even gets to the actual topic of the USS Scorpion. After that he makes no further mention of the prophecies. I mean, sure, there is some tangential relation to the prophesies of Mother Shipton and submarines, but that’s about it. In another example, the entry on the Amazon River is more about the mythological Amazons than it is about the actual waterway in South America.

Admittedly, mythology and folklore are not my areas of interest. If I wanted to know about The Odyssey or The Iliad, then I’d find some good translations and read those. To me, the most interesting portions of the book were the entries on nautical customs, superstitions, and sea monsters. Many of those topics can be covered fairly briefly in sufficient detail, but the book suffers when it tries to summarize huge topics like the Battle of Jutland or the search for the Northwest Passage. There is a litany of far more detailed works on many of the bigger topics covered in this book. Still, many interesting factoids are to be found within the pages.

This book isn’t bad, but it’s not terrific either. I think it bites off a little more than it can chew. Overall, I’d give it a 3.5 out of 5.

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